14 August 2013

Zombies in the Academy

Brent alerts us in TALO to a new book called Zombies in the Academy, with a link to an interview with the authors for Inside Higher Ed. My first response was to point to Jim Groom and co's work using the same analogy to criticise the academy back in 2008 and since.

Yes, the more I read the interview, the more I recognised the "taboo" I'm pointing out, and as Walker called it:

There are two big taboos in academic writing, at either ends of the spectrum of using research: if you attribute to (sic) carefully and closely, you end up being derivative and weakening your authorial voice. Not acknowledging your sources, on the other hand, leads to accusations of plagiarism, and can result in expulsion and other horrors.

But I realise the use of this analogy is common, and I suppose it's highly likely that zombies didn't notice Jim's work back in 2008 and since, nor did a Google search when they thought to use the theme. And it's not fair of me to expect references in an interview, even if the first question was: "Q: Where did the idea originate to produce a volume on zombies in the academy?".

Don't get me wrong, I completely agree with most of the arguments being pitched in this interview to support the book, and it's great to have an Australian voice to refer to on this not-common-enough point of criticism. Up until now, I've only been able to refer to Susan Awbrey's Academic Capitalism. I'll include Walker and Wheelan now, after I've read the book and checked they're not actually walking dead themselves.

They make two comments in their interview that I would take exception to:

Whelan: "Perhaps one of the most accessible meanings is that in a way the "fight" for the university, or for the ideals of the humanities and social sciences in the university, is like a dead romantic fantasy. The reason for this is that those ideals were a kind of a dream associated with a specific historical era that has now past. It is not possible to conduct research or to teach in accordance with those ideals because most of these institutions are simply not resourced to support that (the "golden age" was anyway not so golden, in that access was limited to rather specific social groups). Continuing to try to meet the ideals in the massified system often happens at tremendous personal cost, especially to postgrads and adjuncts and early career researchers. Continuing to espouse the ideals (and selling the claim that they can be realized to young people) at an institutional level is disingenuous and unethical, particularly in those places where the education system is oriented to servicing a labor market that cannot actually offer work to graduates."

I try to argue in my job that arts-based education is important to vocational proficiency - if we're asking graduates to have sustainable and critical thinking for example (and we are), or for them to be innovative and entrepreneurial (and we are), a graduate with these attributes needs to be able to deconstruct a policy or strategy in their workplace, often because the premise of the policy is not even known to the zombie bureaucrat that authored it. Or they need to be able to hold a completely different perspective long enough to see a potential for innovation. That perspective may be informed by language and linguistics, philosophies, political theories, ways of seeing, you name it). Without people equipped to criticise and propose something else, we're left with the blind leading the dumb blind, or a total apocalypse of thought and action. It's interesting to consider that the zombification of the university sector coincides with the loss of arts and humanities. We can't give up, but work harder to show and measure their relevance and "return on investment". But it is frustrating how reluctant many academics from the arts and humanities have been to move with the times. Sadly, the most movement has been into fields like public relations! Sigh.

The other comment in the Interview made by Walker:

Walker: "Actually, I first started to teach in the French public university system, which was ironically even more ossified and zombified, given its reputation as the origin of continental philosophy and critical thought. Maybe things have changed since then, but the French university system I worked in relied on incredibly rigid hierarchies and practices. At my institution, student engagement at an all-time low, and it was incredibly clear that this was due to the set up of their degree programs: for instance any student could enroll in any subject in their first year, [so] I was trying to teach Shakespeare to students who couldn't speak or read in English. There was no requirement for class participation, with 100 percent exams at the end of the session. I couldn't believe that students even bothered enrolling -- and then I found out about their fantastic tax breaks and rental allowances for being full time students! Many of them didn't care what they were enrolled in, and whether they failed, as long as they turned up for exams and cashed in their checks."

This signifies to me that Walker is indeed walking dead. Like too many teaching academics I meet, they see themselves as the centre of a student's universe.. and that what they teach matters utmost. The extra curricular activities in a University are equally if not more important in my opinion, especially where they are protected and nurtured. Student unionism, student activism, student publication, clubs and societies.. these and many other activities like them are where students can develop innovative and entrepreneurial alternatives to the mind numbing vocational obsession of their courses, and the arrogance of their lecturers. Walker didn't even mention it, and makes a deadly suggestion that aids the zombification further.

That said, I'll read their book with interest, and cite their arguments - less the ones I object to at the moment.

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